First and foremost, this article is directed at fastpitch coaches at the youth level, or pre-college, when players have multiple coaches in their ear (hitting/private coaches, high school coaches, rec-ball coaches, moms/dads, and travel coaches). With that being said, let us continue.
Coaches come in all shapes, sizes, and volumes. Some yell, others are passive. Some are aggressive, others are conservative. Some motivate by fear, others motivate by praise. Whatever your coaching style, you will find that coaching is not a one-size fits all approach. In addition, the things that we teach (hitting styles, etc.) don't always work for every single player, no matter how much we want them to or how much we believe in it. However, no matter the style, coaches should have one goal in mind: TO HELP THE PLAYER REACH THEIR MAXIMUM POTENTIAL. With that in mind, here are 3 ways we limit the potential of players, most of the time without even knowing it, as well as what to do instead.
NOT TEACHING PROPER OVERHAND THROWING MECHANICS
This one is a BIG one. Occasionally in the summer-time, I will get to catch Little League or local town rec-softball games. When I watch them, I see scores of young girls with sub-par throwing mechanics, and worse yet, there is no one correcting them. When they warm up before a game, there is no one there to fix any throwing issues. Conversely, when I turn on the Little League World Series, and see 11-12 year old boys playing, I see Major League-caliber throwing mechanics. It is amazing to see an entire field of players with proper throwing mechanics, most of them who can throw over 60 MPH. You won't see that on most 11-12 year old softball fields.
I have a few theories on the reasons why girls have improper throwing mechanics. The first is that most coaches tend to be more lenient on girls when they coach them. If a girl can field a ball, and get the ball to first accurately, no one seems to care what their throw looks like. We just praise girls for getting the ball to a target. However, a throw with improper mechanics will eventually not be good enough to play at a higher level. So, we are letting the player settle for a throw that is "good enough" without ever teaching her how to be great. In short, we are limiting her potential. At practice, make sure you include proper throwing mechanics every day. If you don't know what those are, watch a Major League baseball pitcher or a professional softball player. Those guys and gals are paid to throw for a living. Mimicking these players is the easiest way to get good throwing mechanics out of our players. I believe this is why young boys can throw harder than young girls, despite not being any bigger or stronger at that stage of life. Boys turn on a baseball game and watch their favorite players throw and mimic them, while girls don't always like to mimic men, and their aren't a lot of options for softball on the television (another conversation altogether). Find some video on YouTube, and teach your girls how to throw. At most college recruiting camps, overhand velocity is measured. If your girls can't throw properly and with some zip, they will be overlooked.
BUNTING TOO MUCH
Let me first say this, bunting is an extremely important part of fastpitch. My old travel coach Valerie LeVier used to say "if you cannot bunt, you cannot win", and I believe that 100%. Bunting can move a crucial runner into scoring position, score a crucial runner from 3rd base, and start a rally by getting someone on base. So what's the problem?
At the 8U, 10U, and 12U level in fastpitch, as stated before, most girls have improper throwing mechanics and don't field and throw as well as they will when they are at the 14U, 16U, and 18U level. At the younger levels, a bunt is a very effective tool to get on base, score a run, etc. because most players can beat them out with average speed. If, as coaches, we fall in love with the bunt, we limit our players' potential by never teaching them to hit in crucial situations. Then, as these players get older, they don't develop into great hitters because anytime a runner got on base, they were always asked to bunt. As coaches at a youth level, we have to walk the fine line between trying to win the game and trying to develop our players to play at a higher level. It is tempting to try to squeeze in the run from 3rd base every time because we know it will work, but what about when you have an infield that is solid at bunt coverage? Have you properly taught your players how to drive the ball to the outfield to score a run?
It is crucial in practice to teach our players how to swing away and score baserunners that way. Teach them to move baserunners with a swing, hit behind runners, and hit fly balls to score runners. If we never teach them these tools, they will be stuck on the bench or pinch-hit for when they get to high school and beyond whenever runners are in scoring position. As a former college coach, a player never caught my attention because she could bunt well, unless she was a lefty and was EXTREMELY fast. Sure, a missed bunt is frustrating, and there is a time and a place for a good bunt, but if we never teach our players how to hit, the game will pass them by.
TAKING CREDIT FOR PLAYERS' SUCCESS
"It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit". - Harry S. Truman
As a professional coach who gets paid to teach young people to be better, people often hire me to coach because they believe me to have a certain "style". Sure, us coaches have our ways that we don't deviate from, but our ultimate goal is to MAXIMIZE PLAYERS' POTENTIAL. In short, we need to teach these players to be the best versions of THEMSELVES, not the best players coached by us. All too often, coaches want to be the reason why a player has success, and they want the credit for creating such an amazing player. However, the person who deserves that credit is the PLAYER. After all, they are the ones swinging the bat, making the throws, putting in the hours of practice, and performing when the game is on the line.
As stated before, at the youth level, players have many coaches, and many of them have different styles, philosophies, etc. I see it everyday, girls come into my cage and tell me what their coach told them to do while up at bat, and its completely different from what I told them. 5 years ago, I would have told the player that their coach is wrong, not to listen to them, and to listen to me and only me. However, what does this create? It creates a player who is confused, stressed out because they don't know who they should listen to, and thinking about way too much when they are playing in a game. We should be supplying the player with information that they MAY OR MAY NOT USE when in a game situation. It is their game, they are going to get the credit or the blame if it works or doesn't work, so they should have the power to choose.
As coaches, I believe it is our job to coach ourselves obsolete. We should be teaching our players to make their own adjustments, to take ownership of their own game, so that they don't need us anymore. We have to coach players to coach themselves. We also need to allow players to listen to other coaches. Not one single person knows everything, and even if we do, maybe we didn't explain something in a manner that another coach can. It takes a village to raise an athlete, and there are plenty of good coaches out there. If a player chooses to give you some credit for their success, it all becomes worthwhile. However, when we don't care who takes the credit for a player's success, amazing things can be accomplished.
Coaches, like players, need to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and coach our players to have their maximum potential. For some players, their maximum potential may be at the professional level, for others it might be on the high school JV team. Whatever the potential of the player, we need to find ways to help them reach it. Sometimes that means stepping in and teaching them the proper way to do things, and other times it requires us to get out of the way and let someone else lead them. If we keep the players' potential in front of our ego, we will produce better athletes.